With the cinema release of Gone Girl, which codified the concept of the cool girl while simultaneously offering incisive criticism, a wave of introspection has overtaken commentators and, like Aphrodite from the seafoam, birthed another hot-topic notion of femininity. The cool girl, debated in publications as diverse as Jezebel and the Telegraph, now stands alongside her sisters, the basic bitch and the manic pixie dream girl, in the pantheon of potential female identities. Of all possible iterations of womanhood, of all the manifold and infinite things a woman can be, we collapse them to their simplest forms, paint their portraits in broad strokes, and then chase our own tails asking how accurate they are.
It would be naive to imagine that many women are basing their identity on these ideas. We’re not compelled to choose our self-concept based on these parameters, or obliged to use media figures as models. Although media theorists still argue about the degree of influence pop culture has on our behaviour, there can be little doubt that a civilisation’s art is a mirror, if not a template. And it’s not a uniquely female problem. Representations are equally poor across the board; if we’re criticising women, fictional or otherwise, for drinking beer or pumpkin spice lattes, we should definitely be talking about what the irresponsible masculinity of the Hangover franchise or the emotionally damaged violence of recent Batman trilogy suggest to us.
When Helen Coffey tells Telegraph readers that cool girls don’t exist, she’s entirely correct. None of these figures exist, certainly not in the pure and definitive way that they’ve been described to us. They’re lazy stereotypes, a collection of attributes extrapolated to form a personality; a kind of character shorthand at best, and at worst, another tiresome effort to regulate and manage human behaviour. Like traditional youth subcultures, their definitions are based on consumption and activity – prescribed modes of dress and methods of behaviour are the order of the day. Unlike subcultures, it’s rare to see anyone who willingly uses the stereotype to describe themselves – ironically, self-deprecatingly, or otherwise – outside of the confines of a newspaper column. Under close examination, the existing representations display implicit class considerations, as well as almost overwhelming limitations on race and physical ability.
That’s not to say that the concepts lack any intrinsic value: like reading a novel or watching a film, the characterisations enable us to explore our own identities while contrasting ourselves against others. We can try identities on like new outfits, check them for comfort and fit, and reject those that don’t suit. To use the ideas to define others, though, is to significantly underestimate the limits of human variation. It’s born of the same logic that encourages women to say they’re “not like other women” – the facets of identity that build an individual are erased by sweeping notions and broad stereotypes, to everyone’s detriment. So do we encourage media producers to write more intricate, varied characters? Do we encourage women to form their own self-concept based on a wider selection of potential variables? Or shall we try both, and see what happens?